1. Our Discomfort
Have you ever been asked to do something … Something you were reluctant to do? And did you make excuses why you shouldn’t do it? I’m sure we all have, and probably for a variety of reasons. Because, if you’re anything like me, there are probably many things that you don’t like doing; there are probably many things you don’t even want to consider doing. Because in doing them, you know, that you will be made very uncomfortable indeed.
And for me, that includes anything from answering the telephone, to launching in to some big venture of which I have had no experience. I don’t like unknowns; I like to be comfortable. I like things which are familiar, and things that I am sure will run smoothly. I like to have control over the things that I do. So, when things are unknown or unfamiliar, or when I have little control, I get very uncomfortable. So much so, then when asked to do something, all the excuses under the sun, of why I shouldn’t do it, can come to the fore.
“I’ve never done it before.” “I haven’t any experience.” “So and so would be far better doing that.” “It won’t work.” Or simply, “Pick someone else.”
2. Jonah’s Discomfort
Sounds familiar? Well it probably should, because it’s a natural reaction. And it’s also the reason why, when I read the story of Jonah, in a sense I can sympathise with his dilemma. Because, what God asked him to do, would have made him feel very uncomfortable indeed.
Now Jonah’s story is one that often brings a smile to people’s faces. Asked to do a certain job, he didn’t just hide behind the sofa, but he immediately rushed off in the opposite direction. In other words, Jonah wasn’t just reluctant, he was down-right disobedient. He was determined to do whatever it took to avoid doing what God had asked.
But what was it, that Jonah was so uncomfortable about? What made him run away? Well, we do have one clue in the last chapter of the Book of Jonah (4:2). But to really understand what was going through his mind, we need to look at the background to the story. We need to examine the other excuses that Jonah may have given. The bits that aren’t recorded in the Book of Jonah.
B. BACKGROUND (1:1-2)
And to do that we need to place Jonah, firmly in his historical context. Which we can do quite accurately. Because in the Old Testament, in the Book of 2 Kings, we are told that Jonah son of Amittai was from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14:23-25). He was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel, and he prophesied during the reign of King Jeroboam II, who reigned for 41 years from 793-753 BC.
And because we know where he sits in the history of Israel, I can think of three excuses, that he could have given God, why he shouldn’t go.
2. “That’s not the way we do things”
And the first is, “We don’t do it that way.”
Travelling to other countries to tell people about God, was not the way things were done. In the Old Testament God’s people were supposed to be a light to the world. They were supposed to draw others to them, not go out to others. And if they had stuck to God’s rules, people would have flocked to them, wanting to be part of whatever it was that they had. That’s how God had set up his people. As a consequence, the idea of going out to other nations to tell people about God would have been quite foreign to Jonah. And “That’s not the way things are done,” would have been an understandable first excuse.
3. “They’re our worst enemies”
The second excuse that Jonah could have come up with is, “But the Assyrians are our worst enemies.” And Jonah would have been right. The political expansion of the Assyrian Empire, lasted from 911 BC to 627 BC. And we can read many references in the Old Testament to the military power of Assyria, with the kings of Israel and Judah see-sawing between making alliances with Assyria, to paying them tribute as vassals, to rebelling against Assyrian control.
Yes, at the time of Jonah, Assyria was in decline; it faced bitter internal disputes. But Assyria, even in a weakened state, was still a serious threat to the existence of Israel. And Jonah would have known that. Because thirty years after the reign of Jeroboam, Shalmaneser V conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and took the people into exile (2 Kings 17:3-6). And twenty years after that Sennacherib attacked the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 18:13).
Now we don’t need to fuss over all the details. But let’s think about Jonah for a minute. Yes, he was a prophet. And, yes, he prophesied the restoration of Israel’s borders, during this decline in the Assyrian Empire (that is also in 2 Kings). But Assyria was still a threat. So, when asked by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire … Well you can imagine the excuses, not least of which would have been, “But they’re our worst enemies.”
4. “That’s not what prophets do”
And for a third excuse for Jonah? Well it would probably have been, “That’s not what prophets do. Prophets don’t go to other places.”
And if you think that that excuse is a bit weak, then you’re probably right. But let’s think about it for a moment. Put all the major prophets in historical order from Elijah to Malachi, Jonah would fit near the beginning. Indeed, the prophets would run Elijah, Elisha, possibly Joel, then Jonah, and then all the others would follow. Now Elijah and Elisha, even though they went to Damascus, did not prophesy to other nations. Joel did, but there is no evidence that he ever left the comfort of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Later prophets prophesied against other nations, but in the majority of cases there is no suggestion that they actually went to those places in person. Yes, Jeremiah went in person to the different nations, to prophesy against them. But that was 150 plus years after the time of Jonah (Jeremiah 25:15-29). And even Jeremiah didn’t always go in person. Indeed, on at least one occasion, he sent his message to Babylon via the king’s messenger (Jeremiah 51:59-64a).
So if Jonah, had said to God, “That’s not what prophets do,” then that would have been quite an understandable reaction too.
5. “I don’t care”
So, three quite understandable excuses, that may have gone through Jonah’s mind. “That’s not the way we do things,” “They’re our worst enemies,” and “That’s not what prophets do.”
So now, if we add in the only excuse that is recorded in the book as being offered to God, we get a clearer picture. For in chapter four we’re told that he had been concerned that the Ninevites might actually respond to God’s message (4:2), and that is something he didn’t want them to do. His excuse … He didn’t care for the Ninevites at all. He wanted them to be condemned. And that’s why he had run away.
Now I hope you can see where this is going. The story of Jonah … yes, it does put a smile on people’s faces. But on the serious side, Jonah was asked to do something that was quite alien to his way of thinking.
He was asked to go to a foreign land and proclaim God’s message, when his whole background and culture suggested that he should stay at home. He was asked to go to share that message, not just with anyone, but with his country’s worst enemies. He was asked to do something that no other prophet had done before. And he was asked to do something for a people that he wanted to be condemned and didn’t care for at all. Is it any wonder that he ran in the opposite direction?
And if that had been you or me, if our backgrounds had been the same, would we have reacted any differently? After all, I’m sure we have all been asked to do things that we are not comfortable with, or things that are quite alien to our way of thinking. And I’m sure that either now or at times we have all had enemies, or people who have made our lives difficult. So, in the circumstances, if God had come to us, would we have simply gone? Would we have hidden behind the sofa, pretending that we were weren’t in and hadn’t heard? Or would we have run as far as we could in the other direction too?
C. JONAH’S STORY (Part One)
1. Running Away (1:3, 5b)
Because that’s what Jonah did. Nineveh the capital of Assyria, was about 900 kms, as the crow flies, north-east of Samaria, the capital of Israel. So Jonah went to Joppa, a port on the Mediterranean Sea and got on a boat headed to Tarshish, about 3,000 kms to the west. At the time, as far away from Nineveh in the opposite direction, as he could possibly get. And there, in the boat, Jonah tried to escape from God.
2. The God of Everywhere (1:4-5a)
Now it was quite common in those days to believe that your god, was only the god of the territory to which you belonged. Sometimes your god was ascendant, and other times not. Indeed, even after the time of Jonah, about 730 BC, when King Ahaz of Judah was attacked by the Arameans, and supported by the Assyrians, in response, he offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus, and even had drawings made of an altar, which he then had made and placed in the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:10-18).
However, if Jonah thought he would escape from God, by running in the opposite direction, and even hiding at the bottom of the ship, then he was quite mistaken. For God sent a storm so great, that even the seasoned sailors became fearful. Whatever the limitations of other so-called gods, God was there. And he was just as present in the ship on the Mediterranean as he was in Jonah’s home town of Gath Hepher.
What-is-more, he had told Jonah to do something, and he hadn’t done it. So, Jonah could either change his mind and decide to go, or he could live with the consequences.
Now for those of you, who may be concerned about how God is portrayed in the Old Testament, that he seems to be a God of war rather than peace, then the story of Jonah is an object lesson. The whole point of the story of Jonah, is that there are three groups of people who need saving from themselves: Jonah, the Ninevites and the sailors. And God didn’t want any of them to be punished. Rather, he wanted them to repent and follow him.
As far as the God of the Bible is concerned, life is about having a relationship with the creator and living life under his rules. All other paths lead to eternal damnation. As a consequence, the story of Jonah is a snapshot of the lengths that God is prepared to go to rescue his people; to save people from heading down the wrong track. And in this part of the story, the sailors, who each cried out to his own god, were just as much in need of God’s help, than the disobedient Jonah himself.
So God used the situation, to give everyone a chance to respond, one way or another. Would they continue along the path to eternal destruction, or would they repent and turn to the only God, the creator of all?
3. The Reaction of the Sailors (1:5b-10)
Now of course, the sailors didn’t really know Jonah’s God. Yes, they’d heard about him, and perhaps even feared him to some extent. But he wasn’t their god. As a consequence, they started praying to their own gods, and lightened the ship by throwing the cargo overboard. They even called on Jonah to help them. But, when they became really desperate, they cast lots to see who was the cause of all the trouble (Jonah).
4. The Resolution (1:11-16)
However, when they discovered who the real problem was, they were left with a shocking decision to make. Not least of which would be, to abandon their own gods and to accept Jonah’s God, as their Lord and Saviour. Because throwing Jonah overboard would effectively be an acknowledgement that Jonah’s God really was powerful. And, indeed, even more powerful than their own so-called gods.
But Jonah’s solution would not have been easy for Jonah either. He had shown little care for the safety of the sailors when he boarded their ship. And being thrown overboard would mean placing his whole life firmly in the hands of his God. And the chances are, he wouldn’t have known what was ahead. He wouldn’t have known whether God would come to his rescue or not.
But what he did know, was that he had to place his trust in his God whatever happened. And what he did know, was that he should have done that in the first place. After all, being called to go to another country, and prophesy—and not just to any country, but Israel’s greatest enemy—should have involved Jonah in trusting his God, not in him being fearful and running away.
So Jonah gave the command, and the sailors then prayed to Jonah’s God, perhaps for the first time in their lives. They then threw Jonah overboard, and worshipped God by offering sacrifices and making solemn vows to him.
Now clearly there’s an interesting paradox in this part of the story. Jonah needed to be saved from himself. After all, he had run away from God. And yet at the point when Jonah is tossed into the sea, it is not Jonah who is saved, but the sailors—people who in many ways can be considered to be incidental characters in the story.
The Book of Jonah, then, is an interesting book, and the prophet Jonah is an interesting character. And certainly not the kind of role model that you would put up as a faithful follower of God.
But what does all this mean for us? And what can we learn from the lessons which we are presented with today? Well, for me, the story illustrates four things.
1. God is Interested in Everyone
And the first is, that God is everywhere. He was with Jonah in Gath Hepher, and he was with him on the ship. And evidently he knew very well what was going on in Nineveh too. When it comes to us, then, we can be assured that God is with us too.
God is everywhere. And we cannot hide or run away from him, because wherever we are, God is there. He is with us, he is with those with whom we mix, and he is with our enemies too. We cannot get away from God, and it useless to pretend that we can.
2. God Wants to Save Everyone
The second thing this story teaches, is that God wants everyone to have a chance to respond to him. Indeed, the story illustrates the compassion that God had for the sailors and for the Ninevites. And even with Jonah, he stuck to him like glue. When Jonah ran away, he didn’t just abandon him. He didn’t give up on Jonah, and say, “I’ll pick someone else.” As far as God was concerned Jonah needed to be saved too.
And, if God wants everyone to have the opportunity to repent and turn to him, then the salvation of others should be our main concern too. After all, it’s one of the reasons that the church exists.
Now some of us may have people they just can’t forgive—a family member, a work mate, a former friend, etc. And yet even God was prepared to forgive the people of Assyria, who had done some terrible things to his people. But God wants everyone to be saved. And we should too.
3. God Wants To Use His People
The third thing that this story illustrates, is that, yes, God can do extraordinary things without us even lifting a finger—like the storm, and like the big fish which we will look at next time. And yet he still chooses to use his people to proclaim his message.
But then there’s a point to God using his people, which is well illustrated in the prophet Jonah. Because it wasn’t just the Ninevites, or even the sailors who needed rescuing, Jonah needed to be rescued too.
As a consequence, we need to remember that when God calls us to do whatever it is that he asks of us, it’s not just the other people that he wants to reach, he wants to reach us too. Whatever weaknesses, or preconceptions we may have, God wants to use the situations he puts us in, to teach us as well as to reach the people to whom we have been sent. He wants us to grow, and to be rescued from all the obstacles that we have in our relationship with him.
4. God does not take no for an answer
And fourthly, that neatly bring us back, full circle, to where we started … the excuses. Because God does not necessarily take “no” for an answer.
We might be good at excuses why we shouldn’t do things, particulalry where God and the church are concerned. We might also say, “That’s not the way we do things,” or “They’re our worst enemies” or “That’s’s not what we do.” We might even indicate that in some way that we don’t really care. But yet, one thing that Jonah teaches, is that God might have other ideas.
Yes, we might like to feel comfortable. Yes, we might like to do the things of which we are familiar. Yes, we might like to surround ourselves with the people we like. And yes, we might not like to do things which make us uncomfortable, or which we have never done before. And yet, the story of Jonah shows that there are consequences to saying “no.” Not least of which may be that God may make the sea that we are in so choppy, that we risk getting thrown overboard too.
God does not necessarrily do things in ways that we might feel comfortable. He may use methods that seem very rough. Nevertheless, his ways do get results. And what he achieved in this very first section of the Book of Jonah, was the rescue every single sailor on that ship.
God wanted to use Jonah, for Jonah’s own benefit as well as for the benefit of the Ninevites. And excuses or not, God wants to use us in our part of his story too.
Jonah, then, hardly a role model of a man of faith. Told to do one thing, he did exactly the opposite. But in many ways, Jonah was only responding to what was accepted at the time.
Missions to other nations was not a common practice. Treating ones’ worst enemies with compassion was not something that he would have found easy. And prophets just didn’t go out to other nations, they spoke all their words at home. Is it any wonder that Jonah just didn’t care.
But that’s Jonah, what’s about us? When God asks us to do something, how do we respond? How comfortable are we, with the way we like things to be? And how many excuses do we think up for not doing as God asks?
F. NEXT TIME …
Now today’s episode, is only the first part of the story recorded in the Book of Jonah. But what happened next? Well, that’s what we are going to look at next time.
What we’re going to look is how God rescued Jonah from the sea, and in particular Jonah’s response to that rescue. Because in many ways Jonah’s response is another all too familiar story, which sadly is heard far too often, even today.
Posted: 30th September 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis